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Critics Say Railroads Should Do More To Prevent Pedestrian Deaths


More than 400 pedestrians are killed by trains every year in the United States. That's in addition to the motorists who die when a train crashes into their car at a crossing. When people try to cross tracks or walk alongside them, they're doing something that is not only dangerous, but it's also illegal. They're trespassing on railroad property. NPR's Brian Naylor takes a look now at some of the reasons for the high number of fatalities, and his report does contain some disturbing images.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: After an evening with some friends in Columbus, Ohio, one October night two years ago, Mark Kalina decided to take a shortcut home to his apartment at the Ohio State campus. It involved crossing some railroad tracks.

MARK KALINA: I knew I could have backtracked a couple of blocks and went under a rail bridge, I decided to just walk along the tracks until I get home.

NAYLOR: It was a fateful decision. There was a stopped freight train on the tracks. Kalina lost his footing on some gravel and slid into the train. His sleeve got stuck, and the next thing Kalina knew, the train started moving. He was pulled under.

KALINA: And I laid under the middle of the tracks with my hands covering my head for what felt like forever. Then after it passed over me, I rolled over, saw that my left leg was missing about - way above my knee. I couldn't - there was a lot of blood. I couldn't do anything about it, so I pulled out - pulled out my phone and called 9-1-1.

NAYLOR: Kalina's left leg was amputated above the knee; his right leg, below the knee. He also lost his pinky, but he survived. Most people who have run-ins with trains do not. Last year, 443 pedestrians lost their lives after being hit by trains. Joyce Rose heads Operation Lifesaver, which teaches people that walking on tracks is not only illegal, but dangerous.

JOYCE ROSE: We certainly see what we call hotspots around schools - when it's between a school and, say, a downtown area that the kids want to get to - when it appears to be a shortcut. Maybe they even think it looks safer than walking along the road.

NAYLOR: Scott Sauer is chief of system safety for SEPTA, the mass transit system in Greater Philadelphia. SEPTA averages around 12 deaths per year of people walking on their tracks. He says people don't seem to realize that trains take up to a mile to stop.

SCOTT SAUER: We get a lot of people who use the train tracks as shortcuts. They use them to walk the dogs. They ride their ATV - any number of things that they use the train tracks, and not always at the dedicated areas that they should.

NAYLOR: Wedding parties have even been known to pose for pictures on train tracks. Sauer says SEPTA has installed fencing along some stretches of track around its stations and near schools. Nationwide, there are some 180,000 miles of track, and the industry has largely resisted putting up barriers, says David Clarke, who directs the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee.

DAVID CLARKE: So it's a daunting a task to fence, you know, every mile of track off. This is, I think, a great concern of the railroad industry - that they'll be either pressured into doing this by public opinion, or they'll be forced to do it through government regulation.

NAYLOR: But some believe the railroads need to do more to prevent pedestrian deaths. In 2012, 14-year-old Cameron Vennard was killed by an Amtrak train in Kirkwood, Missouri, on a stretch that had been a popular shortcut to downtown. His family is suing Amtrak, saying, the train's crew did not do enough to stop the train, even though they saw the boy on the tracks. Pat Hagerty is the family's attorney.

PAT HAGERTY: There's a video camera on the front of the engine. And it actually showed that just before the impact, he was darting to his left to try to get off the tracks and even left a shoe on the tracks, so all he needed was another second or two, and he'd still be alive.

NAYLOR: Amtrak does not comment on pending litigation. A spokesman at the time of the accident said, the engineer did blow the train's horn. Mark Kalina now has an engineering degree and gives talks for Operation Lifesaver about the dangers of crossing railroad tracks. He says he was surprised how frequently accidents occur.

KALINA: Unless you're involved, or you hear something, and you look it up, you have no idea how big of a problem rail incidents are.

NAYLOR: And Kalina hopes his example will lead to fewer of those incidents. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.